In Vlad's Shoes
The headlines are screaming, Russia has 100,000, 120,000, 140,000 troops on the Ukrainian border. Russian Tu-22M3 bombers fly over Belarus. The Russian Navy is conducting exercises in the Baltic and in the Black Sea off the Ukrainian coast. What is Russian President Vladimir Putin doing? What is he thinking? Threatening a peaceful democratic country that wants nothing more than to be left alone by its giant bear of a neighbor.
But are Mr. Putin’s action so incomprehensible? Put yourself in his shoes. Imagine how we would react if Communist China began supplying arms to Mexico. What if Mexico entered talks into joining with the new China/Russia axis. It is not inconceivable. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is much more comfortable with centrally planned economies with large state-owned enterprises like China than he is with American free markets and well-heeled investors buying up Mexican companies.
What if AMLO (as he is called although I prefer MALO) began aligning with China. Already China is buying its way into Central America with a stadium in El Salvador, a canal in Nicaragua and a train transportation project in the Yucatan Peninsula as well as billions invested in a host of projects in Panama. What if China placed hypersonic missiles in Mexico?
Are you old enough (or well read enough) to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis? The American public would be howling for the president to do something about Chinese missiles on our borders. Mr. Putin views NATO as an existential threat to his regime, just as we would with Red China on our southern border. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Russian public blames the US for the crisis and backs Mr. Putin’s actions.
Let’s try another thought experiment to better understand Mr. Putin’s frame of mind. What if New England left the United States? I mean, New England was where the United States got started. Remember the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, Lexington and Concord? What would you think if New England not only left the United States, but started getting friendly with other countries that we consider competitors or enemies? Wouldn’t we feel angry and betrayed?
Ukraine was not just a country that was annexed by the Soviet Union. What is now Russia was born in the Ukraine. Kievan Rus was (according to Wikipedia) “a loose federation of East Slavic, Baltic and Finnic peoples in Eastern and Northern Europe from the late 9th to the mid-13th century.” Kievan Rus was founded by Rurik in 862 and was moved to Kiev (or Kyiv) by Prince Oleg in 880 who declared Kiev to be the Mother of Rus cities. Russia, Belarus and Ukraine all claim Kievan Rus as their cultural ancestors. So, Russians, including Mr. Putin, view the Ukraine as part of their homeland, Mother Russia.
So, the Ukraine is not just another country that was under the domination of the Soviet Union just as they were under Tsarist Russia for many centuries – what the Russians call the “near abroad.” It is part of the Motherland. By turning toward the West, the Ukrainians are turning their backs on their ancestral relations who share a common culture and history. This is the lever that Mr. Putin is using to garner support for his regime among his people and why they believe that the current crisis is due to Western interference in Russian internal affairs, just as the Chinese react ferociously against any Western interference with their internal affairs or sovereignty.
The other shoes that Mr. Putin is comfortable in are the shoes of a KGB colonel. He may not be much of a communist, but he reveled in the power and scope of the Soviet Union. He would love nothing better than to reintegrate the former Soviet Socialist Republics that made up the Soviet Union back into the Russian Empire. Belarus is a Russian puppet with a Russian backed dictator unafraid to hijack airplanes carrying Belarussian dissidents. And when the authoritarian government in Kazakhstan had difficulty putting down protests across the country, Mr. Putin was happy to send Russian troops to back the current leader. For a while the fate of the Ukraine seemed to be on the same track as Belarus and Kazakhstan until the Ukrainian people rose up in 2014 and drove out the corrupt Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych was replaced by the Western leaning Petro Poroshenko, prompting Mr. Putin to annex Crimea and back a pro-Russian insurrection in the Donbas region. But from Mr. Putin’s perspective the Ukraine remains unfinished business in the reconstruction of the Soviet empire.
But is the fate of the Ukrainian people (or the Taiwanese people for that matter) to be nothing more than pawns in a struggle of the opposing ideologies great powers? Don’t they have any say in the matter?
The borders of the Ukraine have changed many times as have the borders of many countries in Eastern Europe. At one time the Ukraine stretched from the White Sea to the Black Sea, but subsequently it was caught in the middle of incessant warring between Lithuania, Poland, Russia, the Hapsburg Empire, the Golden Horde and others. Interestingly, the Crimea was never part of the Ukraine. Tsarist Russia took the Crimea from the Ottoman empire in 1783 and incorporated the peninsula into the Empire. The Soviet Union transferred the Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954 (presumably with the idea that the Ukrainian SSR would remain part of the Soviet Union). So, when Mr. Putin took Crimea back in 2014, I was not surprised.
And I don’t think Mr. Putin is swayed by the historical origins of the Kievan Rus. Although I do think that he has no hesitation is using this connection to manipulate the Russian people and the Russian speaking people in the Ukraine. And I don’t think he is intent on an all-out invasion of the Ukraine either.
A consequence of Russian aggression (whether unanticipated or unintended) has been a strengthening of the resolve of the countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The last thing Mr. Putin wants is a stronger more determined NATO.
Germany is the weak link of NATO. In reaction to its NAZI past, Germany is the least militant member of NATO, unwilling to send combat troops to NATO missions around Europe and the rest of the world. Germany has also been reluctant to criticize China’s human rights abuses against the Uighur minority. Despite the similarities of Uighur concentration camps to Germany’s horrid NAZI past, Germany is more eager than ever to do business with China just as American businesses grow increasingly wary of the pitfalls of doing business with the Communist Party of China.
Germany is also addicted to Russian natural gas. In their urgent march toward turning green, Germany not only shut down its coal-fired power plants, it shut down all its nuclear power plants as well. And Germany along with most of the rest of Europe has been reluctant to develop its own shale gas potential. But this reluctance to develop its own resources makes Europe and especially Germany vulnerable to disruptions in the importation of natural gas. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is designed to facilitate the transport of Russian natural gas to Germany, allowing the Russians to bypass pipelines running through the Ukraine. But the new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, reluctantly agreed that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would be mothballed if Russia invaded Ukraine. That would not fit in with Mr. Putin’s plans. He wants to keep NATO weak and ineffective, and German passivity and dependence on Russia gas is key to that plan. So, in the end, I do not believe that Mr. Putin will invade Ukraine, but will be satisfied with some concessions of Ukrainian sovereignty such as adherence to the Minsk protocols forced on the Ukraine after Russia’s first incursion in 2014 and its annexation of the Crimea.
But such a resolution to the current crisis will only be temporary because, to Mr. Putin, the Ukraine remains unfinished business. The crisis in Ukraine is a lesson to the members of NATO, and especially Germany. The rise of authoritarianism supersedes other considerations. NATO needs to be strengthened and expanded, supply lines of strategic materials need to be protected, and the commitment to democratic principles and Western values solidified. I am talking to you Chancellor Scholz. And to you Republicans and Democrats in America as well.